Matthew Crichton: After a very poor start to the season, Steve Cotterill has turned things around at Shrewsbury, are you glad the club stuck with him?
Dan Hough: Well, we’re going to finish clear of the relegation zone and if you’d told me that a month into the season I’d have snapped your hand off. So, yes, I guess in the cold light of day Cotterill has come through and got the team into what is for us a decent place.
There are players in the squad who have improved under Cotterill (Dan Udoh, our centre-forward is the most obvious example) and he’s brought in players who’ve done really well (Luke Leahy, George Nurse, Marco Marosi and not least Tom Flanagan). So, fair play, Cotterill has come to the party.
But, and there are a couple of quite significant buts, Cotterill is still not everyone’s cup of tea. Sure, we have done well on the field at times and recently we’ve come up with some quite eye-catching results (winning 3-0 at Rotherham being the most obvious), but we need to see evidence that Cotterill learns the lessons from the Autumn.
Our squad has been woefully small and as soon as players pick up injuries/get suspended then we find ourselves in round pegs/square holes territory. We’ve basically got lucky in that we’ve not had many injuries and we’ve survived relatively unscathed suspensions-wise. Will that be the same in 2022-23? We can’t bank on it.
Cotterill as an individual has also given a number of interviews that I personally have found really troubling. He seems to have issues with a number of local journalists and at times comes across really badly.
He can be aggressive, he can be rude and he can be downright disrespectful. That tone changes when we are doing well, but there was a significant part of the season where he got all that massively wrong. It left a bad taste in many supporters’ mouths.
MC: Shrewsbury have conceded the joint third least amount of goals this season, what makes your side so solid?
DH. Cotterill plays 3-5-2 and he’s made a point of bringing in players who fit that system. We didn’t keep a clean sheet until the end of October, but now we’re well into double figures in that regard.
We have a group of defenders who know their roles and don’t try and do too much over and above that. George Nurse coming into the side in the Autumn has made a real difference, and Matthew Pennington (once of Everton) has shown that he’s a very able kick-it-head-it centre half. He’s never going to be Cruyff-turning people in his own box, but he’s committed and gives little away.
So, it’s about shape, roles and getting the right people in the right places.
MC: On the other hand, you have only won three of 21 matches on the road, what factors are behind such a poor away record?
DH: The main issue is creativity. We struggle with that both home and away, but it’s been particularly obvious when under the cosh away from home.
Udoh and Ryan Bowman are going to end with decent goal-scoring returns, but it’s taken a long time for us to work out how to get the ball to them so that they can do their respective goal-scoring things.
Every club in our division will probably say that the final third is where they’d like to improve, and we are no different. We have no genuine number ten and much as our three midfielders have done well in terms of stifling the opposition (their work rate is generally exceptional) they are third man runners rather than creative types.
If there’s one place the supporters would like to see additions in the summer it’d be in that creative department.
MC: Shrewsbury signed defender Tom Flanagan from Sunderland on transfer deadline day, how has he performed for your side so far?
DH. He’s been excellent. He immediately fitted into the 3-5-2 and from what we can tell he’s been a really positive influence around the club. So, it’s not just that he’s done well on the field, it’s also that he seems to be a positive influence on others.
The big question in our minds is how on earth we got him on a two-and-a-half year deal. To be fair to Cotterill, he’s clearly done well in pulling that deal off.
MC: Daniel Udoh has scored 12 League One goals this season, what makes him such a threat?
DH: Udoh’s weakness is goal-poaching. He doesn’t score enough goals in the six yard box. But, the signs are there that he’s really working on bringing more of the Gary Lineker ethos into his game.
His big strength is that he’s bustling, he’s strong and he holds the ball up well. He is also adept at turning and running (directly) at defences. Throw in the ability to shoot with both feet and that explains where his goals come from.
My feeling is that there is genuinely more to come with him. I suspect other clubs in potentially higher climes may have noticed, too...
MC: Aside from the above-mentioned players, who should Sunderland be wary of during the match?
DH. Luke Leahy arrived as a left-back but has mutated into an all-action midfielder. He’s scored a number of goals from outside the box this season and is decent on dead balls. Keep an eye on him.
Matthew Pennington is, like many an old fashioned centre-half, decent from corners. He’ll go near post and try to flick the ball on from there. He’s scored a number of goals and will be at the centre of our set piece plans.
George Nurse is also excellent down the left. He’s a calm and collected defender, he’s also got a decent long throw. You’ll definitely see that in due course.
MC: With survival all but certain for the club, are you concerned that the players may already be on the beach as they say?
DH. Well, that’s always a concern, but if they want a future with Cotterill next season then they slack off at their peril. He’s not going to settle for that.
We were well-beaten at MK Dons two weeks ago and drew with Ipswich in our last game so tougher fixtures (like today’s) keep coming, but I’d be surprised if anyone gets out the Cuban cigars this afternoon.
Plus, there’s going to be a decent crowd at the Stadium of Light and it’s obviously one of the stand out fixtures of our season. If you can’t get up for playing in that sort of environment then I am not sure why you bother playing at all.
MC: Which eleven players do you believe that Cotterill will select today?
DH: There’s a fitness doubt over Ebanks-Landell, and Shaun Whalley - having played over 250 games for the club and still going strong - is knocking on the door. But, I reckon we’ll see something like this (3-5-2).
Marosi (GK), Pennington, Ebanks-Landell, Flanagan, Bennett, Fornah, Vela, Leahy, Nurse, Bowman, Udoh.
MC: The two sides drew 1-1 earlier this season, what is your prediction for the final score?
DH: I reckon Sunderland’s recent good form will probably see you through. 2-1 to the Black Cats.